In 1955, Helena Hicks was a student at Morgan State College (now Morgan State University). One day in January, while waiting for the bus, she and a number of her classmates stepped inside Read’s Drug Store, at the corner of Howard and Lexington streets, and tried to order something hot to drink. It was the era of Jim Crow and they were African-Americans; they were refused service. But their action eventually led to the desegregation of lunch counters throughout Baltimore, and helped ignite a wave of lunch-counter sit-ins across the country.
Hicks, 77, is now a commissioner on the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. She has recently been fighting to preserve the Read’s Drug Store building as a historic site. A $150 million city-backed apartment and retail development project on the site has been in the works for years, but no progress has been made, in part because of a tangle of legal disputes. Initially the building was slated for demolition, but according to the Baltimore Brew, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has since promised to preserve part of the facade as well as somehow commemorate the building’s role in the civil rights movement. But for now, the Brew says, the empty building is rapidly deteriorating, due to a faulty roof and open windows. The city has promised to replace the roof, but no action is likely until fall. City Paper spoke with Hicks in advance of a civil rights panel discussion she will take part in at the Maryland Historical Society on Feb. 23. (See “At the Source.”) For more information, visit mdhs.org.
City Paper : How did you become involved in the Read’s Drug Store sit-in?
Helena Hicks: Well, I had been involved with the youth section of the NAACP under Lillie Carroll Jackson as a teenager, so I knew about the protests, and my parents participated in them trying to break down segregation of the theaters, Ford’s Theater and the Hippodrome. And then on to some other segregation issues, including trying to get the stores, like Hutzler’s and [Hochschild Kohn], to open their doors and allow blacks to not just come in and buy—that was the first step—but the second step was to allow them to try on shoes, try on clothes, and be able to return them. . . . Well, in 1954 when they desegregated the schools, I was a Morgan [State College] student, and we were all very much aware of civil rights and that we could break down segregation barriers if we tried.
So we had no place to eat downtown. . . . Read’s didn’t want you in there period. They didn’t want you in the front door. So we decided one morning waiting for the bus, it was cold, and we were going to go in there and sit down and see if we could get out of the cold and see if we could get a hot drink.
It wasn’t planned. I mean we didn’t get together and say we were going to do this and then proceed up there. . . . It was just all of that together rolled into one, the whole thing that we knew we could protest and win. . . . So we went in there with no fear, no idea what would happen, what young people do . . . and they were shocked. It was like, What is going on? Everybody at the counters looked, the waitresses looked. They couldn’t imagine why we were in there. And finally someone said, “You can’t come in here. You don’t belong in here.” And we hadn’t planned this so we didn’t have any idea what the next step was. So we decided our best defense was to be quiet and say nothing. We just sat there and finally somebody—I don’t know what his position was—said, “You niggers get out of here.” And the manager came out and told us we had to leave, in a threatening way. And we didn’t know what he would do, but we knew it was against the law to go in there and the police station was only a couple of blocks away . . . and we didn’t want to get locked up. We just got up and came out. . . .
[After that] the protest kinda picked up. Even though people think about the civil rights movement starting in the ’60s, this was the ’50s—and we had been protesting a long time. The first protest down at Ford’s Theatre [in the 1940s], part of it was with a group of Morgan students. It wasn’t anything new, it was just that the press didn’t pick it up. Now, the press did pick up the Read’s Drug Store sit-in—there were, like, three lines in The Baltimore Sun—and I’m glad they did because that was, like, our only proof that it happened. . . . So we really started a national movement, which we were shocked to find out about in later years, because we were just students doing, you know, I dare you to put me out. You just don’t believe you’re making history, you certainly don’t think about that. . . .
So we started on the change to integrate eating places. And we continued it, because when I graduated and went off to Howard University to graduate school . . . we went into all those restaurants and coffee shops up and down Route 1 on our way to [Washington,] D.C. and we tried to get into them, we tried to desegregate them. It was a continuous movement. . . . It was like building a house, I guess, building blocks. . . . Read’s was just Read’s. Everything else didn’t open immediately. . . . Read’s was just the example of the very first that decided to cave in.
CP : How long did you stay in the drugstore?
HH: We didn’t stay in there long. It seemed like a long time, but when I think back and realize, and talk to the other two persons who are still living—one’s in New York, one’s in North Carolina—we decided it couldn’t have been more than 20 minutes to a half-hour. Because we talked about the classes and how late we were.
CP : What did your parents think about what you had done?
HH: Well, they were furious. The first thing they said was “That’s not why we sent you to school.” You have to remember, it was expensive in those days. It’s nothing when we think about it now. Our whole tuition is probably what a kid gets for allowance in college. But they were furious because all black families were trying to make sure—black and white, everybody tries to do that now—that their children have a better advantage. They wanted us to have an education, and they were furious that here I was a senior and I was going to throw everything away that they had sacrificed to get me through college. And then the other thing they said was, “We’re not used to going to the jail and bailing anybody out. You realize they would have taken you to jail?” That was just a picture of horror as far as they were concerned. Why would you expose yourself to that kind of situation? . . . They didn’t want me to destroy my opportunity that they had given me to have a different life.
CP : How many of you were there?
HH: There were, like, maybe seven. The interesting thing was one of the men on that line—I know him, and I still talk to him—is from Africa and . . . he risked getting deported. His situation was far worse than ours. . . . And he’s just shocked that it’s this late and we’re still fighting this battle to have the Read’s incident really recognized worldwide. I’ve had more expressions of interest from places overseas like [The Times of London] and from foreign students than I have from any of the people right in this country, right in this city.
CP : When you decided to conduct a sit-in at Read’s, had you heard of other lunch-counter sit-ins elsewhere?
HH: No indeed. We’d never heard of it, we never thought about it. We just did it. And when we looked back, we found out—the NAACP told us—that nobody had done that before.
CP : Does it bother you that other sit-ins from the Civil Rights era—like the one at the Greensboro, N. C. Woolworth’s—are more often remembered than the one you participated in?
HH: Yes, it does. . . . We have had our battles with Greensboro and when you go there now, their literature says that they followed Baltimore’s example.
CP : Why do you think that the Read’s sit-in has been comparatively forgotten?
HH: Well, you know, I think because it happened in Baltimore, Baltimore didn’t play it up. And Greensboro, they wanted to have a reputation for desegregating their facilities. So they played it up. . . . We went through a lot to make them back down and to change all the literature references. . . .
The thing that still is missing is a picture of what the environment was like then. While we had all of that activity on what they call the Superblock now, places we couldn’t go in, on that block was a shoe store where we could go in. We could buy shoes, we could try on shoes. We could go in stores like Berger’s, buy cookies. We could go in a lot of places and be treated without any reference to race. So you have this mixed picture, which I think is really the history of Baltimore. Baltimore has never been totally segregated—there’s always been efforts to make it that way—but you always had blacks and whites in the same neighborhoods, in the same schools. . . . We were not like a Southern city, and we weren’t like a Northern city either. We were really a border—we were a picture of both of those things, mixed together.
CP : How do you feel about what’s happening to the building?
HH: I’m furious. Because you are your history. Nobody just dropped down from the sky and started operating. Every place in the world has a history. . . . And it’s just inconceivable that a black mayor would take that stance against an achievement that African-Americans had, and a way made for people like her to be able to succeed. . . .
They produced all kinds of [Superblock] designs that don’t make sense. Like one design, they said, We’ll put your civil rights people on a mural or a stand or something outside the building. And I said, “I was made to be put outside the building in ’55.” . . . I said, “Oh no, we are not gonna be outside that building anymore in life.” So it’s not been a very compatible relationship.